Delicious caramel recipes, from sweet to savory

By Michael Y. Park

Photo: Marcus Nilsson

Count us citizens of caramel nation. For all the sweetness, caramel’s got surprising depth of flavor. It’s simple to make, and as a topping or a mix-in for everything from ice cream to brownies to hot chocolate, it can’t be beat.

But it’s time we stopped thinking of caramel as just something you spoon over your dessert. It’s time to get cooking with caramel in dishes both savory and sweet.

“It’s got this most classic umami flavor, it’s so easy, everybody has sugar in their cabinet, and everybody loves it,” says Anna Posey, pastry chef at Chicago’s Publican. “Do something interesting with dinner, for a change. Caramel gets looked over because people are afraid it’s so sweet, but you can make so many things with it, if you do it right.”

But first, the best candy:

Bourbon Sea Salt Caramels

Makes about 100 caramels.


  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray

  • 2 cups sugar

  • ½ cup light corn syrup

  • 1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk

  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

  • 2 tablespoons bourbon

  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

  • Flaky sea salt (such as Maldon)


Lightly coat an 8x8” baking pan with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper, leaving a 2” overhang on 2 sides; spray parchment.
Bring sugar, corn syrup, and ¼ cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook, swirling pan occasionally, until mixture turns a deep amber color, 8–10 minutes.

Remove pan from heat and whisk in sweetened condensed milk and butter (mixture will bubble vigorously) until smooth. Fit pan with thermometer and return to medium-low heat. Cook, whisking constantly, until thermometer registers 240°. Remove from heat and whisk in bourbon and kosher salt. Pour into prepared pan; let cool. Sprinkle caramel with sea salt, cut into ¾” pieces, and wrap individually in parchment paper.

Do Ahead: Caramels can be made 2 weeks ahead. Store wrapped tightly in plastic in airtight container at room temperature.

Special Equipment: A candy thermometer

The Many Faces of Caramel

There’s more than one kind of caramel. Depending on how long it is cooked, caramel can range from light to dark, with an increasing richness of flavor that starts to verge on bitter. Caramel also comes in “dry” or “wet” varieties, depending on how it’s made (wet caramel is made with liquid, like invert sugar, and tends to crystallize more than dry sugar, which is made with table sugar).

“When you’ve kind of cooked things down to the point of being burnt, you get the umami, toasty flavor that’s so well-rounded,” Posey says. “Dark caramel could be the next brown butter for savory dishes.”

You’ll want to use the right kind of sugar for the right application. When you’re using caramel in a meal that can stand up to the extra flavor, like pork, duck, or fish (think bacon and cashew caramel corn or caramel wing sauce), then you may appreciate using a darker caramel.

For dishes whose flavor would be overpowered by dark caramel, stick to the light stuff.

“Light caramel is for something more subtle,” Posey says. “Corn would be great, or buckwheat or pistachio. Maybe a cheese plate, where the bitterness of dark caramel would bring out too many bitter flavors in the cheeses.”

Take for example these caramel-dipped popovers with chocolate mousse, which are made with white cheddar.

Photo: Tuukka Koski

Get the Recipe: Caramel-Dipped Popovers With Chocolate Mousse

When it comes down to it, caramel is essentially molten sugar, so you when you cook with it, you face the danger of one-dimensional sweetness. Avoid that by pairing the caramel with complementary flavors, as you do with blackberry vinegar in blackberry-vinegar caramel sauce.

“People have used pork chops with pineapple and other sugars with meats for ages, but because caramel’s so sweet, you have scale it back a little,” Posey says. “Try a nice shaved vegetable salad with frisee and radishes and drizzled caramel and something acid to cut that sweetness, or pork belly with a caramel glaze. You don’t want to cross that border of being too sweet and end up with a pork lollipop.”

That’s part of the thinking that went behind the addition of vinegar in our popular caramel chicken, for example.

Photo: Hirsheimer & Hamilton

Get the Recipe: Caramel Chicken

Keep an Eye on Your Caramel

If you’re actually making caramel from scratch before adding it to your dish, know the fundamentals.

Rule No. 1 is: Don’t put your finger in it!” Posey says. “And if you do that anyway and get burnt, don’t put your finger in your mouth, because you’ll burn your mouth too.”

Once you’ve conquered your urge to dip a digit, remember to make sure you use a bigger pot than you think you’ll need, especially if you’re planning on adding cream; to add in the sugar gradually; and to never leave the pot untended.

“Even if I walk away from it for a second (and I’ve been doing this for years), I immediately have a burnt pot of sugar,” Posey says.

If you do burn the sugar just carefully add a little water to the burnt area and boil that up to “clean” the spot, she says.

Finally, if you’ve got leftovers you want to heat up and need to get the caramel loosened up again, Posey says you may need to heat it up in a bain marie (warm water bath) or microwave to avoid burning it.

“Caramel’s so easy!” she says.

And, we might add, delicious!

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